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UWI professors, Jamaican culture and public opinion

BY RICHARD HUGH BLACKFORD

Wednesday, March 26, 2014    

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I listened this week to a Youtube recording of an interview of Dr Sonjah Stanley-Niaah on CVM Television and her take on the status of dancehall music. She commented on the differences of opinion between herself and the erudite Professor Caroline Cooper on the genre.

Both women are celebrated figures at the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies and both have incredible responsibilities in shaping the minds of current and future generations of Jamaicans, especially on the value of the nation's culture and how this shapes us all as

a people.

Denial is the order of the day for a number of Jamaicans as far as dancehall is concerned. Most of us outrightly reject this side of Jamaican culture in much the same way our forebears did of the emergent Rastafari component of Jamaica in the 1950s and 60s, and their rejection of the then nascent reggae music, calling it "streggae" (loose) music as it emerged in 1969.

Significantly, dancehall music has emerged in much the same way as reggae did; from the bowels of Jamaican society, and to a large extent reflective of the voices of the dispossessed and terribly forgotten, who largely survive on the edge of our society. Unfortunately, too, for most in this sphere, violence and death — caused by their own hands as well as the hands of the agents of the State — are omnipresent parts of their reality. And, like the early pioneers of reggae, that is what they write, sing and DJ about, as the lyrics often chronicle their lives. It is graphic and decadent, but it is all too real for ghetto people.

Civil society understandably cringes on hearing these lyrics but must take responsibility for turning its back on this section of Jamaica. Some of these entertainers too are basic vultures who prey on the minds of the less sophisticated and most impressionable in deliberately producing these graphic violent offerings. But in order to address it we have to recognise its existence and appreciate why this fare tracts so well among sections of our population. We have to understand, too, that in this technological age, music is easier to produce, present and reproduce, thus more participants are in competition for a less-focused attention span. Youtube provides instant video publishing, and in that environment the more graphic (audio and video-wise) the better the chance of gaining multiple views. Some of our performers know this and similarly pander to the broader audience out there with an increasing appetite for such decadence.

This is the environment that greets the more conscious among us and assails the sensibilities of well-thinking Jamaicans everywhere. This is the atmosphere in which our vaunted UWI now finds itself as that bastion that now needs to script this aspect of our culture.

I respect both women at the institution for the challenge they now have, but I believe that Professor Cooper has lost control of her portion of this social experiment. Her glorification of "Vybz Kartel", the person, the entertainer, the lecturer, is troubling, and her public seeming objection to the decision of the court in this landmark trial — saying Adidja Palmer has suffered — is worrisome. Nevertheless, in a free society, each person has the right to his/her views. It is important, though, when your position in a society is one in which you have tremendous responsibility as a purveyor of thought, that great care be exercised. When one influences public opinion how you share those views is crucial, because it becomes quite difficult for those consuming the material to distance the view from the individual's public status.

We do have quite a way to go in right-sizing this ship called SS Jamaica, and this cultural storm is but one of the challenges along the way.

richardhblackford@gmail.com

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